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Howells, Gloucestershire &c


Guest Stanley Monkhouse
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Guest Stanley Monkhouse

The Howells thread brough up the oft-read remark of Howells’ music being redolent of Gloucestershire. And we read of those who ‘hear’ the Malvern Hills in Elgar. Is there anything in this, or is it just pseuds corner writ large, an elaboration of something we know to be true? Do people ‘hear’ Thuringia in Bach, or Schleswig-Holtein in Buxtehude? Paris in Franck, (why not Liège)? Vienna in Schubert? People say they hear York Minster in Bairstow, and yet I think neither Blessed City nor Let all mortal flesh was written for that place (one for Wigan PC I think). Is there anything in these conjuctions of art and place or is it all just hokum?

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Guest Cynic
The Howells thread brough up the oft-read remark of Howells’ music being redolent of Gloucestershire. And we read of those who ‘hear’ the Malvern Hills in Elgar. Is there anything in this, or is it just pseuds corner writ large, an elaboration of something we know to be true? Do people ‘hear’ Thuringia in Bach, or Schleswig-Holtein in Buxtehude? Paris in Franck, (why not Liège)? Vienna in Schubert? People say they hear York Minster in Bairstow, and yet I think neither Blessed City nor Let all mortal flesh was written for that place (one for Wigan PC I think). Is there anything in these conjuctions of art and place or is it all just hokum?

 

Howells was particularly proud of coming from Gloucestershire, whether he would have been if that county had not produced several important composers is a good question. In the three years I studied with him at the RCM he was both sincerely helpful and genuinely nice to me, I liked him very much and genuinely love much of his music, but I would accept that there was both a streak of vanity and an element of posing in the way he both was and wrote. A son of the shires from a poor little town in The Forest of Dean (it is still a common Gloucestershire joke that 'over there' the congregation all sit on the same side at weddings) he worked extremely hard to rise above his surroundings. His inspiration was first the cathedral where he became articled pupil to Herbert Brewer and then the remainder of the Gloucestershire set at, or from the RCM - Parry, particularly but also Harwood, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst etc.

 

There are deliberate archaisms in his writing that link to his conscious (and oft-expressed desire) to be thought of as a musical throw-back, and/or A Celt. You might say then that his style was quite deliberately created - the false relations, the rhythmic quirks etc. I can't be bothered to search back and find where I've already written about his more irritating tricks, but Wolsey recently referred to one of them. I had some of these things explained because I asked! This business of vocal phrases frequently having redundant quavers tagged onto the end of phrases was his urgent need to know that the full length would be given to the proper note. I commented that a decent choir would do that anyway. He felt that if a note was clearly shown to continue even into the next bar or over the next main beat, there would never be any question of a singer shortening it.

 

The seriously complicated (indeed unnecessarily complicated) rhythms and the deliberately unfamiliar Italian expression marks are part of something else. He said to me that he liked a score to look difficult. Why? 'I want to keep the wrong people off 'em!' said with glee. Unfortunately this did not work. He described to me that some of the performances being given of his music at that time (early 1970s) were by players whose style he very much disliked - he named them but I won't. When it came to the first performances of the Partita, these were given by John Birch on 'the two worst organs in London' HH's own words.

 

Physically, he was a small man, with some of the (oft-found) implications of that. But think of how it must have been. He came up to London with a scholarship to study amongst the elite (and genteel). That mannered accent must (if not already acquired) have been required pronto! One little student in such a big place, l imagine how urgent the need must have been to impress - and how well HH, always a hard worker, strove to do it. Needless to say, amongst his best works are the early ones: compositions for Sir Edward Terry's choir at Westminster Cathedral (then brand new), and exciting organ works in a free and passionate-style - what one might call 'Harwood plus!' He was adopted and befriended by the great and good of the musical world - not left out in the cold like Elgar.

 

I have no doubt at all that some of his works are genuinely the work of genius. 'Like as the hart', for instance. If he had written nothing else, he would still have been an important composer because this work is unique and powerfully moving. I recognise that not all his works are equally powerful or essential to musical literature. Even so, to have created a style that can be so readily identified is a huge achievement. The snag is, there is quite a bit of 'sub-Howells' around. Occasionally something worthy comes out - has anyone here come across Ian Venables' Rhapsody (Op.25)? It's excellent. ...er....lest we forget, there's all the Howells-style-gobbits in Paul Spicer's works..... (I'll stop at that point)

 

I mentioned above that HH was a hard worker and this is probably the main difficulty for those who have come across works they do not like. Sometimes there are patches of what can only be called note-spinning, the need to complete a work when genuine inspiration may not be available. I do know that he found composition harder and harder work in later life. The methods, the tricks still give these works style but they do not give them substance. Mind you, we have all heard works by composers who either repeat themselves endlessly or include page upon page of banalities in order to fill up time!

 

As to which are likely to be thought his best works, it is all a question of taste and exposure. You won't go mad for Howells' New College canticles unless you've been able to hear them several times. I reckon that anyone who has lived with Howells works will eventually find some that simply won't go away! The Six Pieces are sufficiently often played that most recital-goers will have a favourite, even if this is a favourite between works that all slightly put them to sleep - I hasten to add, not me! I heartily concur with a recent posting which named the Sarabande in modo elegiaco as among the truly great works. On the right organ (which I would suggest is definitely not Salisbury Cathedral) this is a wonderful piece. Again, at the risk of repeating myself, I can firmly state that HH's favorite organs were by Harrison and Harrison. When his all-time favourite (Gloucester Cathedral) was wrecked, he told me that his next two favourites were at Durham Cathedral and St.Mary Redcliffe, Bristol - in that order.

 

The business of whether one can hear such and such in the music, all this is in the listener's ear I think. Does this matter? Of course not.

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The Howells thread brough up the oft-read remark of Howells’ music being redolent of Gloucestershire. And we read of those who ‘hear’ the Malvern Hills in Elgar. Is there anything in this, or is it just pseuds corner writ large, an elaboration of something we know to be true? Do people ‘hear’ Thuringia in Bach, or Schleswig-Holtein in Buxtehude? Paris in Franck, (why not Liège)? Vienna in Schubert? People say they hear York Minster in Bairstow, and yet I think neither Blessed City nor Let all mortal flesh was written for that place (one for Wigan PC I think). Is there anything in these conjuctions of art and place or is it all just hokum?

Many (most?) composers and performers take it for granted that music can in some ways transcend the "merely" aural. Messiaen, for example, heard colour in music, even going to the extent in the score of the brass/percussion piece Couleurs de la Cité Céleste of indicating the colours then being played. He described his Catalogue d'Oiseaux as representing not only the various birdsongs, but also the colours of the birds' plumage. But places so specific as particular hills or churches? Hmmm ...

 

Rgds

MJF

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Interestingly - we have just had Howells on our local BBC 6.30 news programme - interview etc. In reality a lost documentary about Holst that has shown up but HH was there too as was Rubbra et al - Adrian Partington from Gloucester Cath. was interviewed about it etc.

 

A

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Interestingly - we have just had Howells on our local BBC 6.30 news programme - interview etc. In reality a lost documentary about Holst that has shown up but HH was there too as was Rubbra et al - Adrian Partington from Gloucester Cath. was interviewed about it etc.

 

A

A link was given here in the broadcast to extracts from the lost Holst films. One of the available extracts is a six-minute interview with Howells.

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